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You Can Read Her Like a… Magazine

O, The Oprah Magazine, the print-media progeny of Brand Oprah, celebrates its fifth anniversary with its May issue. In its short life, it has generated nothing but love, pleasure and a huge income stream. A true child of its mother, the magazine, published as a joint venture with Hearst, has made the numbers sing like a full-blown gospel choir.

At a time when women's magazines have sputtered, Publishers Information Bureau reports that O revenues topped $207 million in 2004—an increase of about 15%; advertising pages were up more than 10% to nearly 1,600 pages. Circulation, notes the Audit Bureau of Circulations, was up 7.4 % for the first half of the year and has increased 300% since its launch in 2000. A top-10 single-copy-sales performer, O is on track to sell a million copies January issue at the newsstands.

From the start, Winfrey's credibility and TV presence had been an intoxicant to people in the business of creating magazines, and, over the years, many publishers tried to persuade her to partner with them. One hit pay dirt.

Hearst's presentation, helmed by Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines, and Ellen Levine, editor in chief of Good Housekeeping, knocked Winfrey out, says Gayle King, a friend of Winfrey's for 30 years and O's editor-at-large. “I think the line that got to her—because this is a girl that loves reading and loves books—was 'Imagine a book that people could read every month, and it's sort of your words and your philosophies,'” she says.

King, who opted out of a television career to join O at Hearst's New York offices, describes Winfrey's vision as “women living their best lives, in whatever form that takes for you.” Winfrey insists that, even though writing it is like pulling teeth, she writes every word of her short monthly column, titled “What I Know for Sure.” Winfrey says she doesn't have a permanent office at the New York headquarters, but she's getting one.

A Thing of Beauty

Not surprisingly, Hearst has packaged this vision handsomely. “People tell us all the time they don't like to cut it up, they don't like to tear up the articles,” King says. ”

Myrna Blyth, author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberation to the Women of America, concurs that the presentation is impressive. “What makes the magazine distinctive and distinguished is the whole lavishness of the package, which most publishers today cannot afford,” says Blyth, who was editor in chief of Ladies Home Journal for more than 20 years and is the founding editor and editor in chief of More magazine, published by Meredith.

“It's the quality of the paper, the quality of the visuals and amount of information in every issue. It's very, very bountiful and beautiful,” she says. “For the price you pay for that magazine, there is more in it, it is more comprehensive than probably any other general-interest, woman's magazine on the market.”

In the case of O, one can indeed judge the book by its rich-looking cover, every one of which features Winfrey as cover girl. And the magazine's content, which addresses typical categories like food, fashion, dieting and the home, has been “filtered through Oprah's perceptions and taste level,” says Blyth, who notes that women in the U.S. have increasingly been exposed to and, therefore, appreciate higher-end products. “I think Oprah has great taste and great smarts, and that's reflected in the magazine.”

Winfrey's standards are not lost on advertisers, who pony up $133,900 for a four-color page in O.

“People tremendously respect her opinion, and the power she has is incredible,” says Melissa Carden, brand communications manager for Swarovski N.A., the Austrian company that's the world's largest manufacturer of cut crystal. What appeals to Carden—Swarovski has advertised in O since the launch—is Winfrey's “emotional connection” with her readers. “Everybody's trying to make emotional connections with their customers,” Carden says.

That feeling-based tie that Winfrey established with her television audience, over time, was indispensable to the success of the magazine. Says King, “It's because people saw her and got to know her on television that magazine publishers thought, 'Let's do something with this, let's put this in print.”

Blyth underscores the significance of one Winfrey medium's mirroring the other. “There's no other magazine that's connected with anybody who's on television several hours a week,” she says, “so every day is a kind of promotion for the magazine, and the magazine is a promotion for the television show.”

Not all Hosts Can Be Magazines

Oprah may make this fluid crossover look easy, but translating TV onto a page poses challenges.

“It's a much more difficult thing to project in print, because you don't have the ability to use your voice. All you've got is language,” says Dennis McAlpine, a principal and the managing director of Dennis McAlpine Associates LLP, a Scarsdale, N.Y.-based independent research company specializing in media and entertainment. “O has done a very good job reflecting the warmth and caring feeling that Oprah projects on her own television show.”

And her successfully cloning herself for print only accentuates what her competitors failed to do.

“Rosie O'Donnell had a split persona,” says Steve Cohn, editor in chief of the Media Industry Newsletter, referring to O'Donnell's namesake magazine, Rosie. “Her television show was not really the real her. She put on an act there. Then, when she went to the magazine, she said, 'This is the real me.' And the 'real me' did not play in Peoria.”

Cohn notes that, when Rosie launched, O'Donnell ended her show. Oprah will be on the air for several more years. “So she's going to be very visible,” he says. “That will help the magazine.” The recently folded Lifetime magazine was also found wanting. “There was very little synergy between the network and the magazine and very little cross-promotion between the two,” Cohn says. He also points out that Winfrey has “avoided any missteps for 20 years,” in sharp contrast with O'Donnell's and Martha Stewart's legal problems. (That's not totally true; in 1998, she was sued by cattlemen for, in essence, slandering beef.)

People do love her. “Here, you have a talented television personality who has been able to jump out of the screen and hop into your lap on the pages of the magazine,” says Samir Husni, director of the University of Mississippi's magazine service journalism program, “so you're no longer watching her at a distance, but you're holding her in your hands.”

Calling O the “feel-good bible of the 21st century,” he describes Winfrey as “the drug that's going to help you feel good about yourself. You feel down a little bit, you pick up O, you start reading, you say, 'Wow, I can do it.' Winfrey is more than the reader's 'girlfriend.'”

Instead, he calls her “the prophet who's dispensing profit.” Because we are seekers of instant gratification, he suggests, “it makes faith much easier if we believe in the things we see than believing in the things we don't see—and we see Oprah.”

Despite an influx of cult-of-personality magazines—one celebrates Donald Trump; Sly Stallone's offering debuts next month—Husni insists that publishers know there's only one Oprah. “You can say, 'I hope I can be like Trump,' but the thing with Oprah is nobody wants to be Oprah,” he explains. “They want to listen to Oprah.”